LINGUIST List 29.4112

Mon Oct 22 2018

Calls: Phonology, Typology/Germany

Editor for this issue: Everett Green <>

Date: 18-Oct-2018
From: Steven Moran <>
Subject: Phonological (In)stability and Language Evolution
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Full Title: Phonological (In)stability and Language Evolution
Short Title: PILE

Date: 21-Aug-2019 - 24-Aug-2019
Location: Leipzig, Germany
Contact Person: Eitan Grossman
Meeting Email: < click here to access email >

Linguistic Field(s): Phonology; Typology

Call Deadline: 11-Nov-2018

Meeting Description:

(Session of 52nd Annual Meeting of the Societas Linguistica Europaea)

The aim of this workshop is to explore the stability and instability of sound patterns, understood here as the set of phonetic and phonological properties of languages. The inherent stability of linguistic properties is a crucial component of any explanation of cross-linguistic and language-specific distributions, alongside considerations such as the number, frequency, and complexity of diachronic sources and developmental pathways (Greenberg 1978, Harris 2008) on the one hand, and the likelihood of diffusion, on the other.

The question of stability is an important one because linguists often draw inferences about human language on the basis of a sample. Specifically, it would be ideal if linguists could infer the universal probability of a linguistic type from the empirical frequency of that type (Cysouw 2011). Drawing valid inferences of this sort depends, however, to an extent on some version of the uniformitarian assumption, i.e., the idea that ‘human languages have always been pretty much the same in terms of the typological distribution of the units that compose them’ (Newmeyer 2002).

The uniformitarian assumption has been called into question in a number of ways. Maslova (2000), Dunn et al. (2011), Cysouw (2011), and Bickel (2015) have argued that present-day distributions do not necessarily represent panchronic truths about language. Greenberg (1978) observed that particular distributions might indicate different degrees of stability. Nichols (1992, 2003) and Wichmann & Holman (2009) provide measures of the stability of cross-linguistically comparable properties. Of the 137 properties examined, 19 deal with sound patterns, which show varying degrees of stability, e.g., consonant inventories are ‘very unstable,’ while tone is ‘very stable.’ While these studies provide us with a picture of the stability of a number of properties, as well as some methodological foundations, we are still far from understanding the relative stability of a wide range of sound patterns. In particular, many aspects of (in)stability are potentially invisible to particular methodologies. For example, it may be the case that the phonetic precursors of, e.g., three-way length distinctions, are frequently innovated by speakers yet are not phonologized (Greenberg 1978).

Some proposals have been made about the inherent stability or instability of particular sound patterns. Jacques (2011) argues that aspirated fricatives, despite the multiplicity of diachronic sources, are inherently unstable due to their tendency to merge with other sounds. Dediu and Cysouw (2013) find that the feature [round] is unstable, i.e. hard to get and easy to lose. Blevins (2008) proposes that three-way vowel nasality distinctions or three-way length distinctions may be inherently unstable, and tend to be eradicated by sound change. On the other hand, coronal places of articulation for consonants seem to be especially stable, since total coronal loss is vanishingly rare (Blevins 2009). Moran and Verkerk (2018) find that consonants and vowels change at different rates, albeit not uniformly across language families; these findings may point to broad differences between consonant inventories and vowel inventories in terms of stability.

Call for Papers:

We invite proposals for 20-minute talks that explore the stability of particular sound pattern types and on any of the following or related questions:

- How can ‘stability’ be defined and operationalized?
- What are the units of analysis in the study of phonological?
- What are the differences between present-day distributions of sound patterns and earlier distributions?
- Can differential rates of change for different types of sound patterns be identified, and if so, what explains these differences?
- Are different patterns of (in)stability found in different parts of the world or at different stages in the evolution of human language?
- What light can experimental phonetics and phonology shed on (in)stability?
- What are the causal links between facts of human physiology and cognition and the (in)stability of sound patterns?

To submit an abstract, please email a PDF(200 words max, plus references) to by November 11.

This workshop will be submitted to the annual meeting of the SLE (Leipzig, 21-24 August), so it will first go through a preliminary round of evaluation. If the workshop proposal is successful, participants will be asked to submit a full abstract.

Important dates:

- Internal deadline workshop proposal: November 11
- Notification of inclusion in workshop: November 16
- Notification of acceptance for workshop: December 15
- Deadline submission full abstract if proposal is successful: 15 January

Page Updated: 22-Oct-2018